Diversity in the Classroom: the Mennonite Surprise for Liberal Educators

One of the things that has constantly amazed me about teaching at my tiny little Mennonite school is that there is so much diversity. You wouldn’t think so, would you? Not, at least, in a church school serving a conservative denomination that, for better or for worse, has historically stressed conformity.

DIVERSITY IS THE WORD
The word “diversity” is certainly a current catchphrase in today’s world, especially in the liberal public university. You hear about it everywhere from biology (natural diversity), to sociology (social diversity), to literature (various and diverse literary theories). In education courses, we study diversity as it relates to the kinds of students in the classroom. We study different kinds of learners, but we also talk about the various cultural differences that might pop up in the classroom which we might have to deal with. We are instructed to be understanding of that diversity.

MENNONITES: CULTURALLY DIVERSE?
When I moved to Indiana, I felt that in some ways, my days of figuring out diversity were over. After all, I was moving to a tiny town in a rural religious community. How diverse could it be? I figured pretty much everyone would be wearing John Deere t-shirts and camo, and totin’ rifles and warm apple pies. I assumed that I had this community all figured out. I mean, hey, I grew up Mennonite, how “culturally” different could it be?

I assumed I would have my classroom figured out because I reasoned that my students would have a similar background to me. And to a certain extent they do. For many of the students, we have a lot in common. Things like whoopie pies and homemade bread. A capella singing and church food committees. Funerals meals and wedding volleyball. We all know what these things are. But there are ways in which diversity pops up in unexpected ways. For example, our school serves over ten different area churches. Those churches differ in practice and expression of their Christianity. That means the children’s homes differ. Different families have different attitudes toward education. Different families have different practices relating to the use of social media, movies, and Netflix.

A visitor to our school would look out at all my students and see one mass of Mennonite kids. But to the keen eye, the diversity is invigorating. Contrary to what would have been my assumption, not all of my students have white European ancestry. We have students whose racial backgrounds span four different continents. So in history class, I can’t so easily gloss “our ancestors” as being the early Anabaptists in Europe. Also, we have diversity in family background. I think there’s an assumption that Mennonite families are these perfect little units with a Mom and a Dad, six kids, and grandparents next door. But I have found that not all of my students have picture-perfect-package, tied-with-a-bow, families. I see a child desperate for attention, attention she doesn’t get from her large family at home. I see students whose families have been touched with death or separation. I see students fiercely missing their older siblings who are growing up and moving away. I see students with parents from different cultural backgrounds. Backgrounds other than the cookie-cutter Mennonite background of Northern Indiana Amish ancestry. I see students whose families have been touched with pain due to church problems.

And while our private school employs a strict dress code (thankfully), you can even pick out diversity in the students’ personal style through their footwear. Vans or Toms? Converse or Air Jordans? Uggs or wedge booties? There is certainly diversity and difference of opinion.

STEREOTYPES: WHAT’S THE POINT?
So I ask myself, where did this cookie cutter come from? And since it doesn’t fit so many of my students, why don’t we just get rid of it?

Because life is easier if we don’t take diversity into account. It’s much simpler to talk about things “on the whole.” It’s easier to talk about “the majority.” It’s easier to make something “one-size-fits-all.”

But maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

DIVERSITY IN UNIFORMITY
It’s interesting to me that my school is more diverse than I (and maybe other outsiders) originally assumed, but that my school, as a whole, also adds to diversity in literary experiences. Let me explain. While my students’ home lives may be diverse (they have different backgrounds or family dynamics), they still represent, “on the whole” (to borrow that horrid phrase) a generally similar ethnic, or people group, background. The religious background is pretty unifying at our school. So while there is diversity, we do experience a unifying identity. (Students are taught to filter life’s questions through an Anabaptist, Biblical worldview. And many students experience the same in their home churches.)

Yet taking this further, I see this unifying Mennonite identity as adding to diversity in contemporary culture. It is intriguing to see my Mennonite students defy secular teenage stereotypes in the English classroom. I would like to explain how my Mennonite students add diversity where my secular university said there would be no diversity of opinion.

I once took an education course on juvenile literature. The class should have been renamed: Liberal Agenda for Teaching Trashy Young Adult Novels. My professor put together a reading list of “diverse” contemporary literature written for young adults. We read these books in order to get ideas for what to teach at the secondary level. (Later, I found out that nearly all twelve novels were on the banned books list. I should have figured that out. I THOUGHT they were trashy! But coming from my Mennonite background, I wasn’t exactly sure what you “English” people read when you are teenagers.) The point my professor was trying to make by having us read these books and discussing them in class was that there is some literary merit to banned books, and reading edgy novels like this in class can get students excited about literature. It gets them reading, and it gets them thinking. Sometimes contemporary novels can be paired with classics to make that interaction with a classic text more meaningful. (For example, pairing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian with The Scarlet Letter to update discussions about  subculture versus dominant culture.)

The point of the class was not always that classics are bad, but sometimes we need to work really hard to make connections for students. However, there was much classics bashing in that class, especially about some of the heavier religious classics. For example, I was told up and down: “Do not teach The Scarlet Letter. Students hate it. They do not relate to it. Are you teaching is simply because it’s on the curriculum? Get creative.” When I got to my school, I noticed The Scarlet Letter on the curriculum, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, here we go.”

Guess what?
My students loved it. One student gushed: “I loved that book! I would have read it on my own, but I got soooo much more out of it because we discussed it in class!” Every day the kids would come to class: “WHAT?! Dimmesdale is THE FATHER?!”
And the themes of legalism, communities’ response to sin (and sinners), the theme of guilt… All of these things my students highly identified with, and they could relate to these themes. We played conscience alley with the different characters. We played “What Would I Do?” games. We talked about the spiritual themes of the book. (We get to do this at our religious school.) So, thank you, Hawthorne. You wrote a classic, and it still speaks to people today, even teenagers.

I bring this up because I was told that teenagers HATE The Scarlet Letter. Ironically, an institution that preaches diversity got it wrong. They left a Christian perspective out. Interestingly, my teenagers’ one point of uniformity is their one point of diversity in the world. They deeply understand the idea of community versus the individual. They understand the idea of sin and guilt. They’ve seen legalism and hypocrisy played out in their own communities, especially in religious contexts. In some ways, the themes of the novel are very real to them. So I say that I love that my classroom is diverse. And even in its uniformity it is diverse, because they relate to literature they’re “not supposed” to relate to.

This year we read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I had a bit of the same reaction. Oh, dear. Here we go again. Another deep religious classic. But again, my students were so into it. It was the first day, and we had an invigorating discussion about justification by faith alone versus the viewpoint of salvation being faith and works. WOULD YOU EVEN GET THAT READING TWILIGHT. What excited me most about the conversation is that the conversation wasn’t entirely between me and the students. The students were talking amongst themselves, exchanging ideas. So I went home that day smiling. Once again. My students are proving the majority wrong. There are teenagers who want to talk about spiritual things. They don’t see Bunyan and Hawthorne as boring dead guys. (Well, I mean, let’s be honest. Of course they do. But they are willing to discuss the themes of their work. And sometimes volatile discussions ensue. I feel like those are the days that I WIN as an English teacher. Or at least literature wins.)

My take-away lesson is: never assume there is a cookie-cutter shape. Always be on the lookout for subtle differences. If there is a majority, find how that majority is different from other majorities. Diversity is a thing.

My teens get The Scarlet Letter. Not a ton of English teachers can say that.

Maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

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2 thoughts on “Diversity in the Classroom: the Mennonite Surprise for Liberal Educators”

  1. Books definitely broaden horizons. I remember the Scarlet Letter, it was part of the required reading at the public school I attended, and a good story. Very similar to the woman caught in idolatry in Jesus day when strangely no man was found to be accused. I think we need stories like that to have a better view of human tendencies across time.

  2. I love your thoughts on this! I found your blog during the firestorm 😉 since i live very out of the box, i’m always interested in reading about life there. my hubby and i have been raising our tribe in china for the past 10 years. it has stretched us and shaped us into different people, better I hope, but i still get the whoopie pie stuff 😉 Keep writing and teaching, its wonderful. and if you ever want to visit china, well we’d be happy to show you around…. Becki

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